Bird at feeder during winter

It’s cold out there this winter. And though birds are adapted for it, it never hurts to give them a little help. We talked to Dr. Emma Grieg, head of Project FeederWatch at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, about the best ways to help birds get through the winter.

Feeder Facts

Consider safety when putting up a bird feeder. You want to be able to enjoy watching the birds from a window, but windows can kill birds, since they can’t distinguish the reflection of the sky from the real sky. "There are locations you can put your feeders that minimize bird strikes," Grieg says. The safe zones are either less than 3 feet from a window or more than 30 feet away. If the feeder is close enough, birds leaving it haven’t built up enough speed to hurt themselves if they hit the glass; hang it far enough away, and they’re less likely to mistake the reflection as a route to another part of your yard.

Put the feeder where you can easily get to it, because you will most need to fill it exactly when it’s least convenient. "During really big snowfalls is when [the birds] come the most, because their other food sources aren’t available," Grieg says.

If possible, put the feeder near vegetation. "Birds prefer that," Grieg says. "They like somewhere they can go to for cover if a predator shows up." Since it’s winter, evergreens are best. It’s a good time to look around your yard, see what cover it provides once the leaves are gone, and consider what you might plant in the spring. And if you still haven’t thrown out your Christmas tree, it can serve as temporary cover.

If you can’t clean your feeder as regularly in the winter, that’s no reason not to feed. "These are gregarious birds anyway," Grieg says. "Even if you clean your feeder, they’re all going to go roost together anyway. We don’t actually have very concrete evidence that feeders increase disease transmission."

Finally, Grieg recommends an easy way to keep the birds feeling safe and welcome in your yard: "Keep your cat indoors."

What to Feed

You may be trying to cut back on fatty foods after the holidays, but in the winter, that’s just what birds need. Thistle, black oil sunflower seeds, suet and peanuts are good choices.

If you want to get fancy with your feed, check out the interactive feature on the FeederWatch website: Select a region, feeder style and type of food, and see what species you’re likely to attract. Or pick the species you’re seeing the most of and find out what they like best.

And don’t forget to serve drinks. "Water is fantastic to provide in the winter," Grieg says. If you don’t have a heated birdbath, just go break the ice off the top of the water and refill it — the birds will thank you.

What about concerns that you shouldn’t start feeding the birds if you’re going to take a break? Grieg says they won’t starve if you go on a ski trip. "They are using many different food sources. They’re not as dependent on feeders as we think they are."

Help All the Birds

Want to help more than just the individual birds at your feeder? Sign up for Project FeederWatch and start collecting data. By counting the birds that you see in your backyard, you can contribute to a 30-year-long data set and help scientists track how bird populations are changing across the country. The season runs through April 2, so there’s plenty of time left. 

"No one biologist can keep track of bird populations across the continent," Grieg says. "All the people looking at birds already can help us do that.

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